All contents © 2008 Philip Semanchuk.
I wrote this (at the office) the day before I quit. It was my most productive day on the job.
Every job I take involves some chance, some luck, because I can never get a complete description of the project before I start. And the real wild cards are the people. Will my coworkers turn out to be backstabbers? Generous to a fault? Slightly insane? Kind, but with a bad habit of sniffing the fumes from white board magic markers? These questions are too awkward to ask in an interview, and even if I asked I wouldn't expect an honest answer.
My current job involved more chance than most, because I took it just to get the opportunity to live in Sweden. I broke all of my rules about job hunting when I took this job, and this experience has been a good reminder why I made those rules for myself in the first place.
I work for Company Z. It is a big, international, publicly traded company that you've heard of before; the branch that I have joined writes software for other companies. I found my job over the Internet and got hired before I ever left the USA, so it was with the confidence and enthusiasm that comes with being employed that I landed here in Sweden on October 4th. October 5th is now referred to around the office as Black Thursday. This is not, as some have so wryly suggested, due to my arrival but rather the unexpected firing of 25% of the staff that day per orders from upper management. Revenue, it seems, was falling a bit short (due in part to sloppy accounting practices, tsk tsk) and costs needed to be reduced equally. So while I was still sleeping off jet lag, a bomb was dropped in the middle of the people who are now my coworkers. I will give you three guesses as to how morale is at the office.
The first time I met my boss he was cleaning out his desk. It is with good reason that people speak of him fondly (and in the past tense). He was honest and forthright with me as he explained what had happened, and he said that he thought I still had a job but if I did not he would make it his personal goal to see that I got another. So on my first day my job environment changed drastically, but since I had no expectations wasn't a problem for me personally. I suppose this is the only reason I was the only one who didn't get a copy of Who Moved My Cheese?(1)
I had the presence of mind to ask for a piece of equipment vital to life in Sweden -- a mobile phone. When they gave me the phone they explained that it had previously belonged to Kenneth (one of the unfortunate 25%). I didn't realize the implication of this -- it became my job to field calls from all of Kenneth's friends who hadn't yet found out that he'd been fired (or left Company Z to pursue other cheese). Kenneth, if you're reading this, I'm sorry but no one gave me a number where you could be reached.
For the entire month of October I lived in youth hostels (except for 24 hours spent on the Party Barge to Finland which is another story which involves almost being thrown into the Baltic by irate Swedish army soldiers on holiday). Life at the hostel is a whale of a good time but unpredictable. Sometimes you are unlucky enough to share a room with someone who snores so loud that it causes structural damage to the building, and these are not restful nights. Other times your roommates come in drunk at 5 in the morning, and sometimes you're the one coming in drunk at 5, or sometimes not at all. This atmosphere is not conducive to showing up at a regular 9 to 5 job, so I told my employer that I was not going to work until I found a flat. I had an ulterior motive for this threat which was to spur them into action on their promise to help me find a flat. Many bold words were spoken and I thought my plan had worked, but in the end I was reminded that talk is cheap. As the song goes, "If silence was golden, you wouldn't have a dime / Because your mind is on vacation but your mouth is working overtime."
I was given plenty of discouragement about finding a flat in Stockholm on my own. The odds I was given ranged from very, very difficult to impossible. In a triumph of sheer ignorant optimism over adversity, I took just three weeks to find a beautiful flat in an exclusive part of town. I'm paying a lot for it, but even my Swedish friends are jealous. The moral of that story is that good karma will get you in everywhere. I also owe thanks to my friends Annelie and Jonas!
So with a regular place to sleep I finally started showing up at the office in November. I had popped in once or twice in October just to see if I still had a job (I did) and if the mood of gloom had lifted (it hadn't). I thought that with a month to react to my arrival that certain things would be taken care of, but this was not the case. For instance, no one had thought to get me an identification badge, so for the first week of November I had to get a temporary badge every day and then wait in the lobby for one of my coworkers to escort me in. After the first week the receptionists tired of me flirting with them every day and they would just wave me past. A badge is no big deal to me, but this sign of disorganization on the company's part turned out to be just the tip of an iceberg.
A month after Black Thursday, the upper management sent around a new organizational chart. My name did not appear on it. It described vague structure where before there had been none, so that was a step in the right direction. However there is still a huge vacuum in leadership, and the only guy who has the authority to fill that vacuum is almost universally disliked. I think people would be willing to overlook their feelings if he would make some decisions, but he allows the lack of structure to persist. In addition, upper management has yet to speak about the firings on Black Thursday, so the staff are angry with them as well.
No one can find any work for me to do. As of this writing I have been employed for a month and a half and I have yet to do a stroke of useful work for the company, unless you count cheering people up and buying a couple rounds of beers on Friday after work. I thought that my idleness was unique, but a report circulated a few days ago (I wasn't on the distribution list) that last month -- even after firing 25% of the people in the department -- only 31% of our time was spent doing work that was billable to clients. In other words, we could spend two thirds of our time reading Dilbert cartoons online and updating our resumes and no one would notice. We would like to spend our copious spare time checking our personal email on sites like Yahoo and Hotmail, but the Joy Police in Company Z's network administration prohibit access to any of those sites. So us highly paid programmers spend company time trying to outsmart our highly paid network administrators who spend company time frustrating us. Is it any wonder this company is losing money when management advertises their distrust of their employees over such a petty issue?
I tried to make myself productive. I decided to reinstall the software on my laptop. This is a good thing for a programmer to do, because computers don't age gracefully, they tend to get quirkier and quirkier. The only way to clean them up is to wipe out all the software and reinstall every bit of it. I didn't realize I was uncovering more iceberg by doing this, but when I asked where to find the software I needed, I was directed to a cabinet containing the biggest collection of pirated software I've ever seen. I also found out that most of it was out of date, and the only current versions I could find were given to me by a coworker from his personal stash. (I guess this is a big mea culpa on the piracy issue.)
We work in a new old building. It was started ten years ago by someone with more ambition than money, and more money than sense. It is still being completed today. The first week I was here, the elevators still didn't work. Construction is ongoing, so noise is constant. There are seven floors of offices and we're on the top. If you take a ride in the glass elevator you see that most of the floors are unoccupied; they remind me of boarded-up storefronts in a bad part of town. On our floor the layout is very modern, which means open, which means no one has any privacy. At any given hour of the day you can take a walk around the floor and see people wandering around with their mobile phones trying to find somewhere to have a conversation. It isn't easy because meeting rooms are scarce, and the few that we have are open about 10 centimeters all around the top so you can hear everything that's being said in them. The most private rooms on our floor are (in order), the break room, the toilets, and the elevator.
The furniture is high quality, so new it still smells of varnish inside the cabinets. The office is unfortunately typical of those I've worked in. Sleek, expensive furniture is wasted on a room that is an architectural disaster. I sit at a table with room for eight people. Most of the seats are eerily empty except for copies of Who Moved My Cheese? growing dusty. The table is too big to move, so we don't have any choice where we sit. This is a pity, because half of the people in the room have to sit with their backs to the windows. If you've ever worked on a computer before, you know that nothing casts glare on a computer screen like daylight. We can pull a window shade down, but the shade is only about 85% as big as the window, so it lets in light all around the edges. On one side of the room people have cut up cardboard boxes and taped them over the windows to block the light. Somehow I don't think cardboard and duct tape figured in the original architectural drawings. There's lights above our table that we can shut off, but right above them there's another set of brighter lights that we can't turn off, and they only add to the glare factor. We have sexy black cordless phones on our desks, but I'm told that they don't work well and you're liable to lose your conversation if you wander around the floor while you're talking. My friend Steve observed that this collection of counterproductive technology evokes a great classic -- Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times(2).
Since there's no work for me here in the Swedish branch of the company, my boss wants to loan me to the UK branch. I am adamantly against this. As I pointed out to anyone who will listen, I put out a great deal of effort to move to Stockholm, not anywhere else. I'm happy here. I just got a flat, I've learned my way around the city, I know where to find things, I'm trying to learn Swedish, and they want me to move. We butted heads for a while until I extracted from them a promise that I would not spend more than one day per week in the UK. How it can be financially prudent to fly me back and forth every week I don't know, but they seem to think it is OK. Why they chose me for the project is also a bit of a mystery. The project manager described what they need done, and it reads like a list of skills that I don't have. He said it will be an intense development schedule, which means little margin for error which sounds to me like a recipe for disaster. I pointed this out to anyone who will listen but no one seems to think it will be a problem. So they are sending me to a place I don't want to go to do a job I don't know how to do. I am beginning to think that this company not only treats their staff like shit, they treat their customers that way too.
Part of my employment agreement was that I would be sent to Swedish classes, but after a month and a half it has not yet materialized. They didn't help me to find a flat which is another broken promise, but they did give me a mobile phone for which I am grateful. And most unexpectedly, they paid me for the month of October even though I spent only about 20 hours in the office. I spent more time than that on the Party Barge. And my co-workers? Well, they have turned out to be nice, intelligent people. It is my loss that I won't work with them for long, because it is time for me to look elsewhere for cheese -- ain't none here. It shouldn't be too much trouble to find one because all the people who got fired are now working at other software companies who are probably looking for good programmers...
Postscript - Stockholm got a total of eight hours of sunlight in November (it was a rainy month), and one of them came exactly when I walked out of Company Z for the last time. The gray sky opened to reveal a beautiful sunset as if God had pulled the clouds apart just to lean through and say, "You did the right thing, kid". Nothing feels quite so good as The Big Quit.
And yes, I did get another job.
1. The perfect book for layoff-happy times. [back]
2. The film classic about technology gone amok. [back]